The Sino-Khmer War and renovation



Great lords and Le Nguyen Long

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During ten years of warfare, Le Loi gathered a large entourage of battle leaders. Ninety-three such men were listed on the 1429 roll of honor. They were not united by a common ancestor, as were the Tran princes two centuries before. They came from many families and many places, and most of them held the Le surname as an honorific, given to them by Le Loi in recognition of their service to him. They were nearly all from the southern provinces and were illiterate. Later court annalists quoted an unknown writer of a non-extant history to describe them as “avaricious, boastful, licentious … everywhere putting their relatives and favorites in positions of authority … openly corrupt … utterly stupid … like a noisy swarm of bees … like dogs and rats baring their teeth … so thickheaded that they could not tell the difference between a pig and a goat … so ignorant that they did not know the four seasons of the year … full of envy and murder.” This is seemingly an excessively jaundiced view, but these men probably tended toward rusticity and arrogance. Le Loi kept them under control with his strong will and severe discipline. After his death, the great lords who emerged at the forefront of these men passed in succession across the stage of power, each being pushed aside by the next. This came about because there was no adult king until the 1460s. Le Nguyen Long was 10 years old when he became king in autumn of 1433. He was precocious, strong-willed, and high-spirited. There are stories that his mother had been particularly close to Le Loi, but she had died in the boy’s infancy. According to one tale, in 1425 she had volunteered to be sacrificed to a local Nghe An spirit in exchange for Le Loi gaining victory and her son becoming his heir. This unlikely story provided a popular explanation for her untimely  death and her son’s elevation to the throne at the expense of his elder half- brother. Le Nguyen Long had made his way through childhood without mater- nal vigilance. As a small boy, he had witnessed the final stages of the war with Ming and the events of his father’s reign. He ostensibly ruled without a regent from the time of Le Loi’s death. The adults who surrounded him were outwardly deferential while busy with their own affairs. Le Sat was the most powerful person at court. Although the young king was consulted on matters of consequence, he was often at odds with Le Sat and with other officials, showing that the court was in a certain state of contention, with some people finding access to the boy king as a way of furthering their influence. In recorded differences of opinion, the king always had the last word, which indicates either the force of his personality or, more likely, the power of those seeking to harness him to their ambitions. For his part, Le Sat carried the daily burden of government, but he did not know how to deal with the boy king. Already in the first year of his reign, 1434, Le Nguyen Long found himself in the middle of a long argument between two groups of officials, one aligned with Le Sat and one seeking to push Le Sat aside in favor of those with royal blood, including the king’s elder half-brother, Le Tu Te. After many arguments that thoroughly frustrated Le Sat, the king was finally made to understand that bringing his brother into the court would be a mistake, and the leader of Le Sat’s enemies was exiled to a distant post. Also in this year, two of Le Loi’s prominent generals who were not on good terms with Le Sat suffered demotion or censure. Le Kha, who was Le Sat’s particular enemy for unrecorded reasons, was demoted to Lang Son Province on the northern border. Another man, Le Thu, was accused of using soldiers and dynastic revenue to build an elaborate mansion, something many others of his class were also doing. After lengthy judicial procedures, he eventually escaped punishment in consideration of his former service. These two men, among others, were eager to unseat Le Sat. Le Sat had a habit of killing people. Shortly after Le Nguyen Long’s accession, a conspiracy was uncovered and the leaders were beheaded. Not long after that, perhaps still in a grim mood, Le Sat insisted on beheading a workman at a Buddhist temple he was building who, reportedly suffering from fatigue, cited a Confucian cliché to jokingly suggest that the drought then being experienced was an indication that royal virtue was lacking. Then, when two officials were found to be making a business of selling royal slaves to other officials, Le Sat beheaded them. He routinely beheaded officials found guilty of corrupt practices. This was about the same time that he became angry with Nguyen Trai over an argument that Nguyen Trai was having with two other officials who wanted to change some words in a document that he had written. Le Sat was easily angered and expected everyone to obey him as his soldiers had done. He could not understand why people had to get into arguments and behaved in what he considered to be a disobedient manner. Meanwhile the small headstrong king attracted much concern. In 1435, one official had the temerity to confront the king with six accusations: the king refused to study with the teacher assigned to him; he disdained, scolded, and ignored the governess who had been chosen by his father to look after him; he shut his door against the palace “aunties” who attempted to correct his behavior; he abandoned his studies to shoot birds with his bow and arrow, and when his attendants tried to stop him he shot arrows at them; he shunned the children of high officials sent to study with him and instead played with his servants; he spent too much time with eunuchs and gave them gifts. Le Nguyen Long was so angry at this series of rebukes that he sent eunuchs to harass the temerarious official at home and elsewhere. However, the official persisted and explained that he was arguing for the king’s best interests, and eventually the king relented. Despite his adolescent exuberance, Le Nguyen Long seems to have had a rational mind that could be engaged in argument and discussion. A few weeks after this fuss, a case came up of seven criminals who were not yet adults. According to the law, they deserved death, but Le Sat hesitated because he realized that already there had been “too much beheading.” Nguyen Trai argued for mercy, so Le Sat assigned him to take responsibility for rehabilitating the young offenders. Within a very short time, Nguyen Trai reported that they were incorrigible. Two were accordingly beheaded and the rest banished to remote places. This demoralizing lesson in efforts to educate wayward youth resonated with the problem of educating the king. The king still refused to study. Nguyen Trai and other prominent scholars were assigned to take his education in hand, but he would not cooperate, which so infuriated Le Sat that for a time he refused to attend court and demanded the death of a eunuch whom he considered to be corrupting the king. Finally, an official reasoned with the king and explained the serious consequences of his behavior for the whole kingdom and the episode passed. Shortly after, the king was learning to ride an elephant, and when a wild deer was presented to the palace he decided to set the elephant and deer to fighting for sport. When the deer gored the elephant, the elephant in fear backed up, fell into a well, and died. Le Sat and other officials put a stop to this kind of amusement. The king held his peace, but he did not forget his accumulation of resentments. Le Sat had made many enemies with his old-soldier no-nonsense mentality. He had once gotten into a losing argument with a scholar over whether or not widows and widowers should have a reduction in taxes. His argument was that military people worked hard to protect the country and had to pay their taxes, so it was not fair that people who contributed nothing to the country be given special consideration simply because they had lost their spouses. He was very protective of the martial legacy of Le Loi as he understood it, but he could not grasp the arguments of scholars that were based on books and ancient history. Meanwhile, the cadre of scholars at court grew. The biennial literary examinations to select officials that were begun under Le  Loi continued until 1435. In 1434, a plan for instituting regular literary examin- ations in a five-year cycle was published. A preliminary examination that year  selected over one thousand to be given the right to continue their studies, the best of them being allowed to go to the palace academy. At the beginning of 1437, an ad hoc examination in writing and arithmetic selected 690 people to be assigned administrative posts throughout the country.  Education officers were dismayed by how the examination process was sub- verted by the great lords who owed their positions to wartime merit. Such people,  in the words of the Confucian annalist, “were not fond of the Confucianists and  used them only for keeping records, preparing documents, and inscribing litiga- tion; positions of responsibility were given to sycophants.” Great lords filled  vacant administrative posts with their followers and dependents, regardless of ability. The annalists reported that half of those chosen in the 1437 examination had not studied but simply feigned knowledge in order to obtain an appointment. Le Sat was unaware that the king had nurtured a great hatred of him because of how he exercised authority at court. He consequently found himself at a loss in 1437 when the 14-year-old king insisted on appointing his enemy, Le Kha, as commander of the palace guard. When Le Sat opposed this, saying that this  would cause him to fear for his life, the king summoned accusations of insubor- dination against Le Sat and obtained his death. There followed a round of  promotions for Le Sat’s enemies and demotions for his friends. Among those who benefited most were Le Kha and Le Thu. The opinion of the workman executed early in Le Nguyen Long’s reign for suggesting that bad government caused drought eventually became the official view of the court. Year after year the country experienced both drought and insect infestations that ruined harvests. The Dharma Cloud Buddha was brought to the capital to pray for rain. Sacrifices were made to popular spirits and deities in the country, also to the god of agriculture and to Confucius. Punishments for criminal acts were reduced to show mercy as a way of eliciting rain. In 1438, a royal edict observed that the successive years of drought and insects might be due  to the king’s failure to appoint good officials, and consequently the king prom- ised to try harder. Two years later, a similar edict was published. In these years,  Le Nguyen Long was coming out of his adolescent fog and becoming aware of public affairs. In 1437, the year in which he ostensibly came of age and obtained Le Sat’s death, Le Nguyen Long presided over a reform of court music and ritual, the details of which were entrusted to Nguyen Trai and a eunuch named Luong Dang, who was a favorite of the king. The work on court music went smoothly  enough because the eunuch was uninterested and Nguyen Trai made arrange- ments to his own satisfaction. Nguyen Trai supervised the manufacture of  musical instruments and sent stonecutters to make chimes. He also unveiled a painting of stone chimes and explained the importance of music to influence people toward study and good behavior. Luong Dang did not dispute Nguyen Trai’s work on music, which was based on Ming precedents, and this part of the task was completed easily enough. In the midst of his work on music, Nguyen Trai also prepared a compilation of Ho Quy Ly’s vernacular poetry in response to a request from the king. This was a curious task considering that Le historians considered Ho Quy Ly to have been a usurper and consequently a “bad” model for royal behavior. These poems are not known to have survived, but there was apparently something about them that attracted the interest of this teenage king. Perhaps it was a certain intellectual adventurousness and spontaneity that resisted the orthodox verities of Song– Ming Confucianism. At the least, this would explain the fuss that arose between Nguyen Trai and Luong Dang when they turned to matters other than music. The two men could not agree on clothing regulations at court. Luong Dang was not a scholar and was uninterested in bookish precedents. He had his own ideas about what would look good. The king chose his plan over Nguyen Trai’s recommendation, which was based on erudition. Offended, Nguyen Trai asked  to be excused from any responsibility for this topic. More serious was the differ- ence of opinion between Nguyen Trai and Luong Dang over court ritual. Again,  the king was inclined to agree with Luong Dang. Nguyen Trai held his tongue, but another official exploded, excitedly affirming that ritual forms manifested eternal truths and that Luong Dang’s haphazard schemes would “destroy the country.” This dire prediction infuriated members of Le Nguyen Long’s entourage, and the intemperate official was banished, barely escaping with his life. Beginning in 1439, Le Nguyen Long led annual punitive expeditions into the mountains against rebellious vassals. Around the same time he ordered that the Ming people who had settled in the country must cut their hair and wear clothes according to the custom of the Kinh people. He was getting out of the palace and starting to pay attention to what he saw in the city streets and in the countryside. Whether he had the makings of an energetic and intelligent king or would have never overcome the feckless frustrations of his youth is a matter for conjecture. The manner in which he dealt with the question of succession before his untimely death suggests that he was easily manipulated. In 1439, his first son, Le Nghi Dan, was born, and in the following year Le Nghi Dan was made crown prince. In 1441, a revolution among the palace women deprived Le Nghi Dan of this position. Le Nghi Dan’s mother was demoted for being “proud and obstreperous” and Le Nguyen Long then announced that the question of crown prince was not yet decided. Shortly after this, “wayward and insolent” palace women were imprisoned. Finally, an elder half-sister of the king who had been captured and adopted by a Ming general, then raised to adulthood in China before being repatriated during Le Loi’s reign, was forced to commit suicide, being accused of endless conspiracies. Meanwhile, two more sons were born, and the third son, Le Bang Co, born during the course of the upheaval among the palace women, was designated crown prince. Le Nghi Dan was demoted and assigned as prince of the northern border province of Lang Son. The second son, Le Khac Xuong, was assigned as prince of the southern border province of Thuan Hoa (modern Quang Binh, Quang Tri, and Thua Thien). The guiding hand behind these events in the women’s quarters was Nguyen Thi Lo, Nguyen Trai’s young and beautiful wife, who had been assigned as teacher of the palace women and who exercised strong influence over the young king. Behind each woman in the palace was a family aspiring to greatness through being related to a king. There were plots to induce abortions in rivals, and, in this case, to rescind a decision already made about the crown prince. Nguyen Thi Lo, an intelligent, well-educated, good-looking, and spirited woman with the benefit of the king’s eye, was in the middle of these affairs. The king was infatuated with her and kept her at his side “day and night.” In early 1442, the pregnancy of a particular woman in the palace, Ngo Thi Ngoc Dao, caused great concern. She was a daughter of Pham Tu, who had been a follower of Le Loi and who was also a close friend of Nguyen Trai. There are stories about the discovery of an image of the infant crown prince Le Bang Co that was designed to summon demons to harm him. Nguyen Thi Anh, Le Bang Co’s mother, was persuaded that Ngo Thi Ngoc Dao was behind this act of sorcery. Consequently, there was a plot to harm Ngo Thi Ngoc Dao. Nguyen Trai and Nguyen Thi Lo intervened to protect her, reportedly with hopes that she might bear a son who would be king. There are stories of spiriting her out of the palace to safety. In early autumn of 1442, Ngo Thi Ngoc Dao gave birth to a fourth prince, Le Tu Thanh. Seven days later, the king paid a visit to Nguyen Trai’s home at Chi Linh, around fifty kilometers east of Dong Kinh down the Duong River. On the journey back, he was found dead one morning after spending the night with Nguyen Thi Lo. She was accused of poisoning him. Twelve days later, Nguyen Thi Lo, Nguyen Trai, and all members of their families were executed. Two eunuchs who protested their innocence were also executed. The mother of an unborn son of Nguyen Trai fled to the mountains of Nghe An. Twenty-two years later, the boy received a provincial appointment when his father was exonerated and given posthumous honors. Insufficient information has survived to explain the death of Le Nguyen Long and the alacrity of Nguyen Thi Lo’s and Nguyen Trai’s condemnation. Their involvement in palace intrigues had surely earned them powerful enemies. Given the eunuchs’ suicidal protest, as well as Nguyen Trai’s later exoneration and his venerable status in later historical and literary writings, everyone who has written about him has assumed that he was innocent of the king’s death. After  all, he was credited with saving Le Tu Thanh, considered by many later histor- ians as the greatest of all Vietnamese kings, from infanticide. Official historians  also assumed that Nguyen Thi Lo was innocent and attribute the king’s death to “a sudden grave illness” or to “a malarial fever.” If the king’s death was from natural causes, the fact that it was taken as an occasion to eliminate Nguyen Trai and Nguyen Thi Lo suggests that powerful people perceived them as a threat to their ambitions. If this was a regicide and Nguyen Trai was innocent, then casting the onus of guilt upon him would have deflected blame from the conspirators. Nguyen Trai was the most prominent of Le Loi’s wartime associates who was not a warrior and was not from Thanh Hoa. Consequently, he was vulnerable and defenseless. For nine years, the Le court had experienced the vicissitudes of a rebellious, adolescent, orphaned king who was susceptible to the influence of others and finally mesmerized by Nguyen Thi Lo. It may appear as if he learned how to use eunuchs and officials to have his way when he obtained the death of Le Sat. But it is more plausible that Le Sat’s enemies, chief of whom was Le Kha, learned how to use the young king to eliminate Le Sat. As Le Nguyen Long entered adulthood, great lords and aspiring hegemons, taking a lesson from Le Sat’s fate, found cause for dismay in the potential for the king becoming more unpredictable and dangerous. Le Kha and Le Thu benefited from the deaths of both Le Sat and Le Nguyen Long, but whether regicide was one of their means of advancement can only be conjectured.

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